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Tests suggest 40% of recent college grads not ready for the workforce

January 29, 2015

By Joe DeSantis, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

The combined results of a test taken by 32,000 students at 169 colleges and universities suggest that  two out of five graduates are not proficient enough in skills employers regard as critical for managing white-collar work, regardless of their college majors.

The test, known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, or CLA+ (and discussed in a December 2013 article in everythingpeople™This Week!), ignores subject-area content but instead measures critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing and communication. It is the successor to an earlier version of the test known as the CLA. The CLA was designed for school administrators to measure progress of their students over the course of their time at school. The CLA+ is an expanded version of the CLA designed as a tool for employers to evaluate students’ readiness for the white collar workplace.

The study, sponsored and administered by a group called the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), delivered not just the results for graduating seniors but also for freshmen. This way it produced a theoretical measure of progress made by the average student between freshman and senior year of college. The overall results were as follows:

                                    Below Basic                 Basic                Proficient

Seniors                        14%                             26%                  61%
Freshmen                    31%                            32%                   37%

Jessalyn K. James, program manager at the Council for Aid to Education, cautions that the technical validity of the freshmen/senior comparison is limited because the test was not administered to the same group over four years. Nevertheless, she indicated that the results broadly suggest that the college experience does in fact “grow” the students’ skills in the areas tested. The average freshman score (on a scale of 400 to 1,600) was 1039 and the average senior score 1128, a gain of 89 points or 8.6%.

Nevertheless the overall result for seniors suggests a classic glass-half-empty/half-full dilemma. Should employers rejoice that over 60% of college graduates are ready for the workplace, or be appalled that 40% are not? And should parents concerned with the cost and value of a college education rejoice or be appalled by their offspring’s likely 8.6% skill improvement over four years?

A new survey from the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 90% of employers surveyed believe that recent college graduates are poorly prepared for the workforce in the same general areas tested by the CLA+. Debra Humphreys of the AAC&U says employers believe the “knowledge” students acquire in college becomes obsolete quickly, whereas the ability to “. . . continue to learn over time and solve complex problems” is what truly determines their potential to succeed.

Part of the problem, says Ms. James of the CAE, is that while students improve their ability to reason, to problem-solve, etc., too many of them start college with such a paucity of those skills that despite their progress during college, they still enter the workforce with serious skill deficits. 

For recruiters and talent managers, grade point averages are notoriously unreliable. Therefore, the long-term potential for the CLA+ to provide a comparatively reliable assessment of a college graduate’s potential is a welcome prospect. However it will take time for the test to achieve enough critical mass to build a database that will firmly establish its brand credibility. It has only been around since 2013 and, according to its website, CAE itself claims that 700 institutions are using it (in Michigan, Western Michigan University is one of them). In the meantime, recruiters will have to continue to rely on traditional methods to predict their recently-graduated applicants’ potential for success.

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